There are certain assumptions built into British society. One of the most basic of them is that the country’s educational landscape is dominated by Oxford and Cambridge. The two are not only known as Britain’s oldest universities, but its best. University league tables continue to generally confirm this, with Oxford and Cambridge, often interchangeably, claiming the positions of first and second place in the UK. However, there does increasingly seem to be a widening field of competition between the top universities in the UK, which is especially reflected in world rankings.

Now, while not predicting a three way Boat Race any time soon. What appears to be happening is that the traditional two-way rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge is slowly becoming a three-way rivalry that includes some London-based universities, as the gap in quality narrows between them.

It is worth being specific about the London universities we are talking about here. They are University College London (UCL), Kings College London (KCL), the London School of Economics (LSE) and Imperial College London. The first three are all constituent colleges of the University of London, while Imperial left the body and became independent in July 2007.

The increasing challenge, presented by London universities, was reflected in the QS World University Rankings, published last month. The rankings placed both UCL and Imperial above Oxford. The question therefore arises could these London universities soon overtake Oxford and Cambridge? This seems unlikely at the moment. 

One study does not provide enough evidence to establish the existence of a trend. However, the recent Times Higher Education rankings reached some similar results. This is represents a break from the past, since previously Oxford and Cambridge could rely on their reputations, if not of overwhelming superiority then of substantial superiority, to attract the most talented students. Now, they must compete for them.

‘Oxbridge’ and the London universities come from two starkly different traditions. The amazing longevity of Oxford (founded in 1116) and Cambridge (founded in 1209) seems to hold much of the secret to their success. Both have a tradition of excellence, quite literally over hundreds of years. In fact almost no other educational institutions, in the world, have had as much time, as Oxford or Cambridge, to perfect teaching methods. Finally, the distinctive tutorial system (or ‘supervisions’ if you like) is often seen as the key to the educational success of both universities.

The London universities under discussion bear a very different profile. They are comparative upstarts, as they were all founded in the 19th century. They were established with a strong Victorian ethos different to that of Oxford and Cambridge. No doubt, the London universities also draw vitality from the city of London itself. London has an intimidating number of libraries, which makes it a natural powerhouse of learning. Furthermore, the diversity of London and its status as one of the global capitals of the world makes it a centre of debate, which naturally attracts an international body of both students and staff.

However, the whole concept of university league tables is rather subjective and worthy of some scepticism. The result depends on the criteria, which one believes makes a ‘great’ university. Even the weighting of different criteria can lead to radically different outcomes. In addition, there seems to be an inbuilt bias in favour of English-speaking countries in the world rankings, as there is a rather suspicious predominance of American universities on the lists. For example, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, was the only non-British European university to be in the top 20 of the Times Higher Education rankings. 

What does seem true is there are smaller differences between the top universities, in the UK, and that Oxford and Cambridge are no longer just competing against each other nationally. Oxford and Cambridge have for a long time been competing with other universities on an international scale, this is now increasingly becoming the case on a national scale too. Past success is no longer the harbinger of future success. League tables act as a warning against complacency in an increasingly competitive environment. British universities are one of the things the country can be proud of and, if you can bear to use the phrase, is an area where Britain continues ‘to punch above its weight’. If there are more universities capable of providing an education closer to that, which Oxford and Cambridge do, then that is surely a good thing.